Church leaders call on Northern Ireland politicians to restore hope
The leaders of the main churches in Ireland have appealed to politicians to alleviate hardship and restore hope in their joint New Year message.
In it, they underlined that they "do not underestimate the challenges faced by our political leaders in these uncertain times, but we have a vocation to witness to the fact that the essential purpose of political leadership is to protect the common good".
They added: "We appeal to them to focus their efforts in this coming year on measures that will alleviate the hardship experienced by families near and far, restoring hope and preventing people being pushed to the margins of society."
The joint statement was issued by the Church of Ireland Primate, Archbishop Richard Clarke; Catholic Primate, Archbishop Eamon Martin; Presbyterian Moderator, Dr Noble McNeely; Methodist President, Dr Laurence Graham and Bishop John McDowell, the President of the Irish Council of Churches.
The church leaders expressed their shock at rising levels of homelessness. "The protection of children is one of the primary reasons for the existence of a social welfare system, yet in the Republic of Ireland, one in three of those living in emergency accommodation is a child," they said.
"In Northern Ireland, families with more than two children are among those most at risk from the combination of welfare changes, cuts to services, and cuts to charities providing vital support to children and to young people.
"Across the world, over the past year, the number of families displaced by conflict, persecution and destitution has continued to rise, placing the lives and futures of more children at risk. It is deeply unfair that so many parents in our society feel that they are failing because they cannot provide security for their children, and that many are reluctant to ask for help because of stigma and shame."
Next August, the Catholic Church will host the World Meeting of Families in the Republic, an event due to be hosted by Pope Francis.
The church leaders said: "As Christian churches we have taken the opportunity presented by this event to explore together how we can celebrate the importance of families to our churches and the wider community, recognising that our pastoral care of the family is an essential part of our contribution to society".
In a separate New Year's message to mark the World Day of Peace, Archbishop Martin said: "I am reminded of the violence and war that continues to rage in many parts of the world and, in particular, of the horrific acts of terror that are carried out by some people who have so distorted and twisted their religious beliefs to justify such gruesome and shocking atrocities."
He said that he was also mindful of the plight of migrants and refugees.
He added: "Pope Francis draws our attention to the 250m migrants worldwide, of whom 22.5m are refugees. He invites us in a spirit of compassion 'to embrace all those fleeing from war and hunger, or forced by discrimination, persecution, poverty and environmental degradation to leave their homelands'."
The archbishop added: "My wish is that Christians everywhere who exchange the Sign of Peace will be empowered by God's grace to become active ambassadors for peace in the Church and in the world, beginning in their own homes, families, workplaces and neighbourhoods."